The last time Minnesota won a division title was in 2009, when Brett Favre was the quarterback. But with the Packers crumbling, the Vikings are primed to rule the North again. Here’s what makes them tick
America, meet the Minnesota Vikings, the best team in the NFC North—both in record and in actuality. During the summer, many predicted the Vikings would take that Next Step under second-year coach Mike Zimmer. But no one forecast that a Week 10 victory at Oakland would be their seventh of the year. This morning, they lead the North for three reasons:
1. Their offense has a distinct identity, centered around Adrian Peterson and the power running game.
2. Their defense is young, fast in all the right places and very well-schemed.
3. The rival Packers currently have a poorly coached, mediocre offense that happens to be led by a phenomenal quarterback. (And that quarterback has been inconsistent lately.)
But the purpose of this article is not to condemn the Packers, who entered Week 10 amidst a two-game skid and came out of it home losers to the Lions for the first time since 1991. (If you’re interested in what’s triggering Green Bay’s struggles, read my Extra Point from two weeks ago, which followed their first loss of the season. The ills of that game were repeated last week at Carolina. And, presumably, without yet confirming on the coaches film, repeated again this week against Detroit.)
The purpose of this article is to introduce casual fans to the upstart Vikings, necessary considering Minnesota hasn’t had a nationally televised game since a dreadful Week 1 Monday Night showing at San Francisco. Let’s take the tour.
Start with that offense. Chances are people know two guys: Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater. And chances are, people believe that Peterson is every bit as good as he really is, while Bridgewater is better than he actually is. For reasons unknown, it’s become heretical in the Upper Midwest to say anything the least bit negative about the second-year quarterback. Many believe him to be the best young signal-caller in the game, and Sunday’s win over the league’s actual best young signal-caller, Derek Carr, will only intensify this misnomer.
In reality, Bridgewater has limitations that Carr—and other upper-echelon young quarterbacks—do not. Namely, arm strength. Bridgewater is not a guy who can “make all the throws,” as they say. He doesn’t have a Chad Pennington-type noodle, but he cannot consistently drive the ball at the deep-intermediate levels. In the last two weeks the Vikings have played in windy conditions and, not coincidentally, their downfield passing attack has disappeared.
Limited arm strength doesn’t mean Bridgewater can’t play. Rather, it means, like Pennington, he can only play a certain way. His ascension as a pro will hinge on his ability to anticipate throwing windows. To overcome his limitations, he’ll have to be great in this realm. Quarterbacks with declining arm strength can target these tight windows because, having once had the arm strength, they’ve spent their careers identifying them (see: Brees, Drew). When you’re relatively meager-armed, it’s never occurred to you to target the tight windows because you’ve never been able to.
Some—in fact, many—modest-armed passers remain big-window guys their entire careers. Alex Smith is a good example; and so far Bridgewater resembles Alex Smith. That may seem unflattering, but it’s not necessarily. Smith, after all, is a smart QB. He doesn’t make many big plays because he doesn’t take a lot of chances, but on the flip side, he doesn’t make many negative plays either. He plays in a well-constructed scheme under Andy Reid, emphasizing his strengths while avoiding his weaknesses. This is where Bridgewater is. Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner is a brilliant play-designer and play-caller. And while Turner prefers vertical passing and aggression at the deep intermediate levels, he realizes he’s no longer coaching Troy Aikman or Philip Rivers, and he has subtly amended his approach accordingly. The Vikings’ passing game features reads that are not strictly defined, per se, like in a remedial system. But overall, many of the reads are at least somewhat defined, or inherently contained in a way that simplifies the QB’s progressions. Evidence of this are the rollout passes, wide receiver misdirection concepts (plus screens) and high-low route combinations, on which Bridgewater can read two receivers and one defender all within the same line of vision. This controlled approach has lifted some of the pressure off Bridgewater and has served to neutralize a Vikings offensive line that has tackles (Matt Kalil and especially rookie T.J. Clemmings) who can be vulnerable in pass protection, and an interior (guards Mike Harris and Brandon Fusco plus backup center Joe Berger) that lacks athleticism.
So far, this article probably sounds negative given that it’s describing a legitimate 7-2 division leader. Limited quarterback, subpar O-line. But you can’t overemphasize the “well-designed system” factor, and, oh, also, that other big-name offensive player everyone knows. Adrian Peterson, the league’s leading rusher (961 yards, including 203 at Oakland), remains the most explosive runner in the game, particularly on his first step after changing directions. To play to this explosiveness, Turner has built his game plans around Peterson and instituted more classic inside run concepts, with Peterson lined up eight yards deep in the backfield (so he can build up a head of steam). From there he attacks between the tackles, behind double-teams at the point. Minnesota’s offensive linemen might not be great, but two of them will still overpower one of the opponent’s defensive lineman. From there, Peterson can consistently beat linebackers.
Peterson’s dominance allows the Vikings to keep Bridgewater on a leash (one that’s retractable per the situation). Also giving teeth to an otherwise safe offense are the playmakers at wide receiver, most notably Stefon Diggs. With a mixture of quickness, acceleration and body control, the fifth-rounder is easily the NFL’s best rookie receiver not named Amari Cooper. Averaging 84.5 receiving yards per game, Diggs has fully supplanted up-and-comer Charles Johnson atop the pecking order. Johnson, in fact, has battled injuries and fallen to No. 4—a testament, as much as anything, to the depth and dimension of Minnesota’s receiving corps.
So Bridgewater is a limited but well-coached young quarterback who is steadily improving and surrounded by a strong cast of skill players. That’s enough for sustained success when you put this grouping opposite a top-five defense, which the Vikings have. Zimmer is one of the best defensive teachers and schemers in all of football. He’s installed the full scope of his patented double-A-gap pressure foundation in Minnesota, and the results have been outstanding. The beauty of a pressure scheme—and particularly one like double-A-gap, where the inside blitz looks before the snap create one-on-one pass rushing scenarios for everyone across the board—is that it engenders coverage disguises as well as unpredictability in the pass rush. Consequently, opposing quarterbacks play with a reactionary unease. The benefits here for the defense reach far beyond sacks and turnovers (where the Vikings rank 14th and 22nd, respectively). It’s very difficult for an offense to establish rhythm against a defense that schematically dictates the terms of engagement.
In double-A-gap, the disguises stem from defenders’ ability to drop into coverage. In Cincinnati, where Zimmer had an inordinate number of highly athletic defensive lineman, you often saw an end or tackle dropping as part of a zone blitz. In Minnesota, Zimmer’s best speed is concentrated at linebacker and safety. Players at these positions have been the primary blitzers and coverage droppers for the Vikings. At ’backer, second-year man Anthony Barr is big and versatile. Next to him, rookie Eric Kendricks (who has missed the last two games with a rib injury) offers good enough speed to have supplanted heady veteran Chad Greenway in the nickel package. That means Kendricks, when healthy, plays every snap, while the still-stellar Greenway sees under half of them. At safety, Harrison Smith’s high football IQ and flexibility as a box thumper or rangy route jumper in space form the backbone of the pressure packages and disguises. And at the other safety, Andrew Sendejo, a lower-case version of Smith, is markedly more comfortable in Year Two in this scheme. He’s playing as fast as almost any player at his position.
With speed in the second and third levels up the middle of his defense, Zimmer has more leeway for aggressiveness in disguise. That is to say, he can ask his men to cover more ground when rotating out of a pressure look into coverage, or vice versa. More ground equals more possibilities the offense must consider. Or, when thing really go Minnesota’s way, the more possibilities the offense fails to consider.
Last item with the Vikings’ top-ranked scoring defense: There are a handful of role players who are simply playing at a really high level. The one who stands out every week is nose shade tackle Linval Joseph, the best inside point of attack front line run defender in the league this season. In the secondary, cornerback Xavier Rhodes offers size and physicality, though lately it’s been veteran Terence Newman making most of the plays. The 37-year-old corner—which, by the way, is the equivalent of something like a 52-year-old quarterback, or a 64-year-old kicker—had two sensational interceptions as well as critical back-to-back solo pass breakups at Oakland on Sunday.
All of Minnesota’s victories this season have come against teams that now sit below .500. Don’t read too much into this; any NFL game is hard to win, and if the Vikings hadn’t won their seven games, then three of their opponents—the Bears, Rams and Raiders—would have winning records. But the point is: Yes, this week’s home test against the Packers is the stiffest the Vikings have faced in 2015 (save for the road contest at Denver). They likely won’t be favored since betting lines are a reflection of popular opinion, not expert opinion. But heading into the game against Green Bay, the Vikings are, without question, the better team.
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